Adaptation: Re-creating the novel as a stage play
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The Novelist/Playwright: on Externalizing Interio rity for the Stage.......1
THREE CUBIC FEET, A NOVEL…………………………………………….15
THE LAD SKETCHES, A PLAY…………………………………………....205
ADAPTATION: RE - CREATING THE NOVEL AS A STAGE PLAY
Dr. Marly Swick, D issertation Supervisor
The critical introduction examines Linda Hutcheon’s notion that the process of adaptation is worthy of observation, and that in analyzing a novelist adapting her own work for the stage, we begin to see how the interiorit y of characters can be externalized for the stage. First, I look at Norman Mailer’s adaptation of his novel, The Deer Park , for the stage. Using Robert Breen’s method of chamber theatre as a lens, I examine Mailer’s stage directions and changes to dialogue . Next, I look at my own adaptation of my novel, Three Cubic Feet , into a stage play, The Lad Sketches . By adding a magical character and incorporating an object into the action of the play, among other changes and additions, I was able to externalize for the stage the inner lives of my novel’s characters. I conclude that observing a novelist adapting her own work for the stage is particularly revealing of the process of adaptation and helpful to all adapters of fiction into stage plays.
The second section is the text of my novel, Three Cubic Feet . The novel is about Theo, his family, and his boyfriend, Jonathan. In a small college town in Missouri, life for a gay teenager can feel stifling and bleak. When a chance encounter with a young professor ends in s eduction, Theo Williamson must decide how much to tell his boyfriend and his family, and in the end, he must overcome his own guilt and fear to see that his allegiance lies not with everyone else, but with himself. This is a story about the body,
how it ca n be broken, violated, and sometimes used to violate others, and yet we go on, we heal, and life continues.
The third section is the text of my stage play, The Lad Sketches . The play is based
on four of the main characters from Three Cubic Feet , Theo, hi s parents, and his boyfriend. Set in a pizzeria in a small town in Missouri, Theo is confronted by his parents when they discover through his sketchbook that he is leading a secret life. The play traces Theo’s struggle as he realizes he must break off his relationship with his boyfriend and break away from his parents. Issues of sexuality and secrecy are explored in the play through Theo’s relationship with his parents and his boyfriend, as well as his parents’ own histories of childhood abuse.
CRITIC AL INTRODUCTION
The Novelist/Playwright: On Externalizing Interiority for the Stage
Many novelists have tried their hand at playwriting, and some have adapted — successfully or not — their own works for the stage, including Alexandre Dumas, fils , Charles D ickens, Wilkie Collins, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Salman Rushdie, and Leslie Epstein. One of the biggest challenges a novelist faces in adapting fiction for the stage is to show to the audience what was previously told
to th e reader. This is especially true when a writer tries to externalize for the stage the inner life of a novel’s characters. In her book, A Theory of Adaptation , Linda Hutcheon challenges the cliché that interiority is the terrain of narrative and that exter iority is best handled by drama (56). She examines adaptations of several novels into film, opera, and musicals, but she says little about novels that have been adapted into stage plays. Generally, there is little scholarship on adaptations of novels into stage plays, and even less about the writer’s process. There is a need for scholarship about adaptation that includes writers’ reflections on the experience of adapting their own works for the stage — these insights will provide a deeper understanding of the process and the possibilities for all adapters of fiction for the stage. In this essay, I will take up Hutcheon’s call for testing out “theoretical truisms or clichés against actual adaptation practice” (52) and show how the particular situation of a nove list adapting her own work for the stage — both the move toward collaboration and the shift in medium — enables the writer to externalize the interiority of a novel’s characters.
Fiction is literature, but drama is embodied literature. The transition fr om novel to stage play is a move from telling a story with words on a page to showing a story with spoken words, live action, and constructed sets. When a novel is adapted into a play, as Hutcheon explains, “description, narration, and represented thoughts must be encoded into speech, actions, sounds, and visual images” (40). Some adaptations of novels, such as those done in the style of chamber theatre, are designed to serve the original text, to increase the audiences’ “critical acumen” (211) in understan ding literature. Robert Breen, a professor at Northwestern, developed chamber theatre as a tool for teaching literature to students, a kind of readers theatre where the text is strategically divided among multiple readers, which was designed to help studen ts understand literary texts better than if they were just reading the texts on their own. Much scholarship has been devoted to adaptations intended to serve literature, such as chamber theatre, as well as to evaluating the fidelity of an adapted text to i ts original source material. A more recent turn in adaptation theory is to look, instead, at how we can analyze an adapted work as an adaptation . Linda Hutcheon suggests that the presence of the original text and the fidelity of the adaptation to the origi nal need not be the “criterion of judgment or the focus of analysis” ( 6 ), but rather, that we can look at adaptation as an active process of creation and interpretation (7 - 8). This process, when the adapter is transitioning back and forth between the novel and the script, is a locus for understanding how the inner lives of fiction characters can be externalized for the stage.
One of the basic differences in the process of writing a novel and the process of writing a play is that playwriting is collaborati ve. Unlike the months and years of solitude required for writing a novel, playwriting demands a shorter timeframe; troupes of actors don’t have years to dedicate to the development of a play. The playwright depends upon the actors as they interpret and emb ody the characters, and the writing is propelled by the collaborative effort of the entire group dedicated to developing the play, which includes limited schedules. Leslie Epstein, professor and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Boston University , describes writing a novel as, “on average, six years of solitary confinement. But it takes only six months to write a play, and if you’re lucky, the balance of the year is spent in collaborative effort ….” (para. 9). He adapted his novel, King of the Jew s , a year after its publication in 1979. The play was given a public reading at the old Phoenix Theater in New York, but the theater went bankrupt before mounting a full production. Later, in 2007, Epstein had the chance to further develop the play through
readings at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. The script went from twenty - five parts to twelve. Before rehearsals began, the producer and the director’s questions pushed Epstein to drop lines and further develop what he’d thought was an ensemble piece into an ensemble, as he put it, that finally had a conductor (para 7). Once rehearsals began, actors came to him with questions, and more changes were made. Developing the play became a collaboration “with people who have the heightened ability to sense the in ner lives of others” (para. 9). As the actors found a “lapse in motivation [or] some note that was false to a character,” (para. 8) they were able to show Epstein where he hadn’t yet been able to externalize the inner life of a character. This collaborativ e process, where the novelist - playwright develops the script while watching the actors embody the characters, enables
the writer to understand what must be present in the dialogue and stage directions in order for the actors to effectively show the story o n stage.
What is it about the specific situation of a novelist collaborating with a director and actors in adapting her own work for the stage that provides the opportunity for other adapters to understand more about how to externalize interiority? The no velist has an intimate understanding of her own characters, themes, and narrative structure. Through wrestling with a text for months or years, a writer develops a deep knowledge of the many threads that come together in a novel and is uniquely positioned — if she has the desire and the “ear” for stagecraft — to bring those forth in a stage adaptation. Another element to consider is that in working with actors and a director, the writer is literally externalizing what, previously, had been an internal process. In essence, the work of turning from a medium that is solitary to one that is more collaborative mimics the task the writer is trying to undertake with her characters; she must get them out of her head, off of the page, and into the mouths and bodies of th e actors up on stage. As creator of the source text, the playwright has no obligation, if she so chooses, for fidelity to her earlier novel. As mentioned above, much criticism has been dedicated to whether or not an adaptation is “true” to the original. Wh en writers adapt their own novels for the stage, I would argue that they have more freedom than other adapters, and thus may attempt changes, additions, and deletions that an outside adapter might not.
I am not suggesting, however, that when a novelist ad apts her own work, she is more likely to produce great plays. Many novelists - playwrights have not been successful, hence comments like the following from Toronto theatre critic Frank Moher: “ Famous novelists may make many mistakes in the course of a long c areer. They may hire the
wrong agent. They may fire the wrong agent. They may insult Oprah. Or, they may try to write a play” (13). However, I would re - state Hutcheon’s theory that one of the interesting aspects to examine in adaptation is process. In obse rving a novelist adapting her own writing, whether or not the stage play is ultimately a critical or commercial success, we get to see a part of the collaborative process of someone with a great deal of freedom and a deep understanding of the story as she interprets, transforms, and ultimately critiques her own work, externalizing the story for herself, for the actors and director, and ultimately, for the audience.
Most novelists who adapt their fiction for the stage are not working toward a staged re ading in the spirit of Robert Breen’s method of chamber theatre, but some of the methods for adaptation used in chamber theatre are helpful in understanding choices a novelist might make in adapting her own fiction into drama. In chamber theatre, one way t o emphasize the different stances of an omniscient narrator in a novel is to split the narration among multiple readers. Paul C. Edwards, a student of Robert Breen’s, explains in his essay on adaptation, “Adapting Fiction: Chamber Theatre as Criticism of N arrative Structure,” that narration can have multiple poses or stances in a fictional work. In this essay, Edwards takes the work that Breen did with chamber theatre and uses it explain how to use this format to perform and critique narrative structure in a long novel. For example, in his adaptation of Dickens’ Dombey and Son , Edwards realized there were several recurring narrative stances in the novel: “near - silent observer of dramatic scenes, omniscient ‘manipulator’ of action, sympathetic commentator, ir onic commentator, social critic, comedian, [and] preacher of sermons” (82). The final structure of the adaptation
presented for the audience this variety of narrative stances by dividing them among multiple readers. This division embodied and gave a separa te voice to the various narrative stances. The intention behind this kind of adaptation — to increase the reader’s critical acumen in understanding literature — served to externalize for the audience what was previously woven into the fiction.
One novelist wh o adapted his work for the stage and divided the narration of his novel in ways similar to what Edwards describes is Norman Mailer. In 1967, Mailer’s stage adaptation of his novel, The Deer Park , was performed at the Theatre de Lys in New York. Mailer’s wi fe played one of the lead female roles, and Rip Torn, a friend, played one of the lead male roles. Even though Mailer didn’t specifically write about the collaborative process of writing the play, it is fair to assume that, given the cast he was working wi th and the fact that the play wasn’t published until after the production opened, he was, in fact, collaborating with others as he completed the script of the play.
Published in 1955, much of Mailer’s novel is told in first - person. Edwards’ explication of chamber theatre adaptation is relevant to the first - person sections of The Deer Park ; Mailer actually splits and recombines first - person narration for the stage play. The novel opens with Sergius arriving at Dessert D’or and getting picked up by an older woman, Dorothea. Sergius describes her as a “former personality” (6) and goes on to list her many previous jobs, but his description of Dorothea is anchored in the overall description of the physical space of her home, dubbed “The Hangover,” and the recurr ing parties that gather there. For the play, however, Mailer has split apart these descriptions into dialogue told directly to the audience by two different characters, Dorothea’s former lover and her son (125 - 6). These two characters take Sergius’ narrati on from the novel
and then, breaking the fourth wall, they describe Dorothea and her parties to the audience. By dividing the narrator’s descriptions and presenting them through other characters who have strong emotional ties to Dorothea, Mailer externaliz es the novel narrator’s interiority and utilizes the increased tension of family and sexual relationships to create a more dramatic way of presenting Dorothea and her milieu. These characters have more at stake in talking about Dorothea than the narrator, Sergius, has.
However, in the novel, the narrator, Sergius, doesn’t always tell the story in first person — at times, Sergius lapses into an all - knowing narrator. In the play, through Mailer’s use of stage directions, all of Sergius’ inner thoughts, as both a first - and a third - person narrator, are transformed into physical space and he is, in effect, re - cast as an entirely omniscient narrator. When he adapted his novel into a stage play, Mailer kept t he thirteen main players from the novel and cast the narr ator from the novel, Sergius, as both a narrator of and a character in the play. The stage directions indicate that, “the attempt must be made to suggest that the set bears some relation to the inner space of Sergius O’Shaunessy’s memory, that the audience is in effect living within his mind” (33). In this way, Sergius’ inner thoughts are completely externalized for the audience to see.
In addition to using stage directions to show the inner life of his narrator, Mailer also divides out different narrative stances from the novel into dialogue for the stage. Even though the narrator of the novel is a single character, as mentioned above, he omnisciently narrates several scenes in the book, often in a telegraphed hindsight. One such scene is near the end of th e book, when two of the novel’s characters are in a car accident. In the novel, all of chapter twenty - five is dedicated to the months, days, and hours leading up to the car accident. Sergius begins the chapter with this:
What can I say about it? Like his own flesh, Faye knew the loneliness in Elena. It waited for her, the sullen water behind a dike; let a breach be made and she would be carried away over the flooded land of the past. So he knew she was the material out of which suicides are made. (327)
T his moment is not about the character Faye telling Sergius his plans for convincing Elena to commit suicide. Rather, it is a transition from first - to third - person narration, a transition that Mailer initiates earlier in the novel, which by chapter twenty - five, is quite comfortable to the reader. Even though Sergius isn’t present for the months leading up to Elena’s suicide attempt and the subsequent car accident, he narrates all of the details from an all - knowing point of view. In the play, on the other ha nd, the way the audience first learns about the accident is that Faye admits early on through dialogue that he “ was in [jail] for smashing a sports car without a license. Plus one other item. There was a frail in the car with me who got hurt weird to fear. I was in, you may dig, for beauty slaughter” (55 - 6). Thus, the accident from the novel is no longer told through the frame of Sergius the omniscient narrator, but rather, directly through dialogue from the character responsible for it, which increases the dramatic tension of the play.
The rest of chapter twenty - five in the novel, the months of build - up to the accident narrated by Sergius, is presented in the play through dialogue between Elena — the “frail in the car … who got hurt weird to fear” — and anothe r character (169 - 77). Just as Mailer allows Faye to brag about “beauty slaughter,” his choice to let Elena tell the story leading up to the accident in which she nearly died increases the dramatic tension of the play. Unlike Edwards’ work, which is intende d to reveal the narrative structure of the original and to point the student back to the literary text, Mailer’s process of adaptation
actually transforms the novel’s narration into the script of a stage play that stands entirely on its own, separate from the original text.
Like Mailer, I adapted my own novel, Three Cubic Feet , into a stage play. Also like Mailer’s stage version of The Deer Park , my play, The Lad Sketches , stands alone and apart from the original text of the novel. In fact, I wasn’t finishe d with the novel when I began adapting it, and I actually discovered the novel’s ending, that the main character must leave his boyfriend, by writing the stage play. The Lad Sketches focuses on four of the characters from the novel and many of the same the mes, but the setting is entirely different, and the play incorporates a magical character. The Lad Sketches was my first attempt at writing a full - length play, so I was learning how to write a play as I was working on it. My position as a student of the pr ocess contributed to how I approached the entire project — I was open to collaboration and to what the directors and actors were able to show me about my own play. The Lad Sketches was performed in three different venues — the Corner Playhouse at the Universit y of Missouri (MU), and The Missouri Theatre and The Blue Note, both in downtown Columbia, Missouri. With the director of the first staged reading, Dr. David Crespy, Professor of Theatre at MU, I learned how to incorporate theatricality into the play. Unde r his direction, I realized the magical character was the key to manipulating the world of the play and allowing all of the characters to shift into and out of reality. The second production consisted of two ten - minute sections of the play, minimally stage d. Elise Link, a PhD student in Theatre at the MU, directed, and Whit Loy, a Theatre undergrad at MU, played the lead, which he had also done in the first staged reading. With Elise’s direction and Whit’s work on the character of Theo, I was able to furthe r develop the motivation for the two teenage
characters, realizing that Theo needed to break up with his boyfriend and why. Finally, under the direction of Kevin McFillen, a PhD student at MU, the entire play was fully staged. By working with the cast and crew on every step of the production, I realized how my stage directions affected the flow of the action, and I developed a new scene that comes late in the play, where the main character as an alter - ego superhero character kills his boyfriend. Each direct or and each set of actors brought different biases and insights to the script, helping me see the holes, the lags, where the lines were false or a character’s motivation was unclear. The different requirements of each venue pushed me to clarify and simplif y my stage directions and to appreciate the boundary between playwright and director. In learning to trust the collaborative process of playwriting — that I was but one among many in bringing this play to life — I was able to let go of the absolute control I h ad once had as a novelist.
The collaborative process of discovering and developing a play often brings unexpected insights for writers accustomed to working alone. In his book, Subsequent Performances , British director Jonathan Miller describes working on a production at the American Place Theatre with American poet Robert Lowell, who had adapted a group of tales by Melville and Hawthorne into a trio of plays called The Old Glory . Miller says Lowell was “constantly surprised” during rehearsal at finding “me anings with which he was previously unacquainted [that] were disclosed by his own play” (81). Miller surmises that this was in part due to “Lowell’s innocence, his inexperience in the theatre, and relief that the play was put on at all” (ibid). Miller’s de scriptions of Lowell and his reflection on Lowell’s role as playwright mirror what I felt throughout the process of writing and
producing my own play — it was as if I were part of an always unfolding moment of uncertainty and earnest discovery.
I understood early on when I was adapting my novel that I would have to work to externalize the inner life of my characters. The idea of theatricality — elements that would transform my play into a performance and utilize the unique offerings of the stage — became my lens . The first element of theatricality I introduced was a magical character, someone who could interrupt the regular space/time continuum of the play. He is my “unique factor,” or as David Ball, Professor of playwriting, acting, theater history, and literatu re at Carnegie - Mellon University, explains, the “something out - of - the ordinary that arises – usually but not always early in the play – and that causes a turn from ordinary events” (87). The magical character enters the stage and when he unlocks a door, lights
and noise come up; his command as the principle trickster sets up the world of my play as a place where anything could happen. At certain moments in the play, this character stops the action and forces the parents to re - live childhood memories in front of the audience. The enactment of these moments externalizes the parents’ inner lives in a way that provides for the audience a context for why the parents are struggling with their son.
The next theatrical element I used was an object incorporated into the action of the play: a sketchbook that the main character carries around with him. Buzz McLaughlin explains in The Playwright’s Process , a classic text for playwrights, that “[o]ften the dramatic point of a scene can be punched up by having characters refer to, hold, exchange, or otherwise use an item that literally or symbolically represents what’s being talked about” (177). Early in my play, the mother begins looking through the main character’s sketchbook, something she has promised never to do. She reads passages out
loud and then rips pages from the book, which then get projected up on stage. Through her words and actions, the audience begins to see the inner life of Theo, the main character, as he has illustrated it with the superhero characters he has created in his sketchbook. His interiority is made physical, audible, and visual through the sketchbook. Near the end of the play, there are scenes in which Theo and his boyfriend actually enact their roles from the sketchbook, the superheroes Lad and Ladd ie. In these moments, the audience gets to see Theo embodying a fictional version he has created of himself. Theo as Lad works through what is happening to his character on a subconscious level, figuring out whether he (Theo) is going to break up with his boyfriend and if he can stand up to his own parents. The moments with Lad and Laddie are a small drama within a larger drama, characters playing fictional versions of themselves, externalizing the inner lives of the characters by physically embodying the d ilemmas occurring within the characters for the audience to witness.
When an author adapts his or her own works for the stage, it is a means for the author to journey with others into his story in a way that cannot occur when the novelist is working alone. In addition to Jonathan Miller’s comments about Lowell’s innocence and inexperience in the theater leading to Lowell’s surprise at finding hidden meanings in the text of The Old Glory , Miller also adds another possible reason for Lowell’s openness to inte rpretation:
As a poet, who worked with complex allusions and extremely elaborate references and traditions, he [Lowell] acknowledged the idea that in writing you are never fully aware of the meanings that are present in a work you make. Although there is a sense in which the maker of a work is in a privileged position to say what he might or might not mean by what he wrote, an intelligent and imaginative person, like Lowell, who was committed to the notion
of the unconscious sources of his own ideas, was pr epared to accept the possibility of alternative interpretations and to identify very closely with them once they became apparent in the course of rehearsal. (81)
Lowell was willing to accept from Miller and the actors at the American Place Theatre that th ere was more to his play than he had realized. In a previous section, when I posed the question of why we should watch the process of a novelist adapting her own work, I suggested that a novelist is uniquely positioned because of her deep understanding of the original text, the novel. This deep understanding does help the writer in getting to the bones of the story, which is in essence what a play script is. However, this deep understanding must combine with an openness to further interpretation in order fo r a writer to make the transition to a stage play and ultimately realize the performative possibilities inherent within the story. The work the writer does of collaborating with a director and actors, transforming what was once internal and imagined for th e writer herself and that now must become external and performed for an audience, mirrors the work the writer does to externalize the inner lives of her characters. The writer’s task of adapting his novel for the stage is an ultimate — and instructive — form o f learning how to show a story, a lesson helpful to writers in single and multiple genres alike, as well as to adapters.